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Study: Transitional kindergarten students are better prepared for school

12.01.2015 | EdSource | Sarah Tully

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Children who attended transitional kindergarten performed better on language, literacy and math skills when they started kindergarten, compared to their peers who weren’t in the program, according to a new report.

The American Institutes for Research on Tuesday released its first report that examines the impact of California’s transitional kindergarten program, which was created through the California Kindergarten Readiness Act in 2010.

Transitional kindergarten is a unique, state-funded program that allows children to get an extra year of schooling before kindergarten if their 5th birthdays fall between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2. Lawmakers added the new grade after they changed the cutoff birthdate for kindergarten, which required children to turn 5 by Sept. 1 in order to enroll. About 83,000 children attended transitional kindergarten, also known as TK, in 2014-15.

“This study finds that transitional kindergarten does appear to provide students with an advantage in terms of their kindergarten readiness,” said Heather Quick, one of the study’s authors and the principal investigator.

When they started kindergarten, children who attended transitional kindergarten were academically as much as five months ahead of their peers, who were a similar age, the report shows. Researchers found that transitional kindergarten students had higher literacy skills, such as identifying letters and sounds, and more advanced math skills, such as counting objects and completing word problems, than those who did not go to transitional kindergarten.

The study also found that transitional kindergarten students had “greater executive function” – skills, such as remembering the rules and controlling impulses. However, the study found no major differences between the two groups in social and emotional skills.

The study examined assessments and teacher surveys from two groups of kindergartners:

  • 1,562 children who attended transitional kindergarten and whose birthdays were between Oct. 1 and Dec. 2.
  • 1,302 children who were ineligible for transitional kindergarten because their birthdays were between Dec. 3 and Feb. 2.
  • All children in the study attended kindergarten in 2013-14 at 164 elementary schools in 20 districts.

Quick said researchers wanted to compare children who were close in age. More than 80 percent of the comparison children attended some type of center-based preschool, such as private campuses or Head Start.

“We’re not trying to pit TK against preschool,” Quick said. “What we can say is that TK appears to have an impact on student learning compared with the business-as-usual scenario. That is, what kids would have received had they not gone to TK.”

The report highlighted a few major differences between transitional kindergarten and preschool.

Transitional kindergarten teachers must hold bachelor’s degrees and teaching credentials, while preschool teachers often don’t have degrees. The California State Preschool Program, for example, requires only a permit that is obtained after completing 40 college units.

“Many of the TK teachers taught kindergarten so they are very familiar with the curriculum,” Quick said.

Also, transitional kindergarten is part of the K-12 school system, which means that classes are run largely by public school districts on elementary campuses.

“There is likely to be more alignment between TK and the school’s K-3 experience than between other early education programs and the K-3 experience,” the report states. “This close alignment may help TK be more successful in increasing students’ kindergarten readiness.”

The report says that school district leaders may look at the results of the study when deciding whether to expand transitional kindergarten for younger 4-year-olds. A state law change earlier this year allows school districts to use their own money to pay for transitional kindergarten for more 4-year-olds – those who turn 5 after Dec. 2.

Leaders from Early Edge, a group that advocates for early education, praised the report for showing how transitional kindergarten can work.

“Children in transitional kindergarten are getting a significant boost in kindergarten readiness,” Deborah Kong, president of Early Edge California, said in a statement. “AIR’s research confirms that California made a smart investment in TK. Now with new clarity in law about funding for expanded TK, districts are encouraged to offer an additional option to young learners and their families to build a strong foundation for success in school.”

Erin Gabel, the deputy director of First 5 California, said the report “validates the investment California has made in that cohort of children.” She said she hopes it will encourage legislators and others “to think more broadly about early learning as a strategy to close the achievement gap.”

EdSource reporter Susan Frey contributed to this report.

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